Sep 06 2022

What To Make of the Artemis Launch Delays

As you are likely aware, NASA’s latest big project is the space launch system (SLS) which is the rocket system that will be used by the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon. The SLS also contains the Orion capsule, which is a deep space craft capable of holding four crew for missions up to 21 days. It is currently the only deep space capsule, capable of the high speed reentry required for return from the Moon.

Artemis I, and uncrewed test mission, was scheduled to launch on Monday August 29th. This launch had to be scrubbed because of the main engines were not at the right operating temperature. The problem turned out to be a faulty sensor. However, there are limited launch windows (only a couple of hours) and the problem could not be identified and fixed within the launch window, so the launch was scrubbed. It was then rescheduled for Saturday September 3rd. This time the problem was a real leak in the hydrogen fuel tanks, likely a problem with one of the seals. They failed to fix the problem on the launch pad so again had to scrub the launch. Leaking hydrogen is a serious problem; beyond a certain point there is a risk of the leaked hydrogen exploding on launch, and they were well beyond that safety point.

This shows how delicate this whole process is. It may be possible to fix the seal and the leak with the rocket still on the launch pad. However, the batteries used for the abort system are getting to the end of their optimal readiness window, and those batteries have to be swapped out in the engineering building. So the rocket has to be taken off the pad and brought there to reset everything to be ready for launch. This puts the next earliest launch date about six weeks off, in mid October.

Are these launch delays routine and expected or are they evidence that the SLS is a boondoggle, as its harshest critics maintain? I think it’s a little of both.

If we look at it from the perspective of the Artemis program, the original plan was to return to the Moon using the SLS and Orion by 2028. Trump decided he wanted to move this up to 2024, but this was never realistic. NASA has since pushed the date back to 2025, but are keeping the accelerated schedule. These recent delays, therefore, are only relative to a significant acceleration of the program. Heavy lift launch vehicles are complex, and this is a new design. Attempting a launch is part of the process of testing the system and making sure everything works. A single faulty sensor can scrub a launch. As we learned from the Shuttle program, a loose bit of foam can doom a shuttle. Caution is appropriate, and this is what caution looks like.

However, the life of the SLS started well before Artemis was envisioned. In 2011 the Obama administration cancelled the Constellation program, which was NASA’s next heavy lift rocket. The Shuttle program also ended that year. NASA, and perhaps more importantly all of its contractors, were left without a heavy lift rocket program. So a deal was struck, the Obama administration would fund a new heavy lift rocket program using as many existing components from Constellation and the Shuttle program as possible, and NASA would start outsourcing low Earth orbit (LEO) launches to private industry. The latter half of this deal has worked out spectacularly, with Space X being the prime example.

But the success of the private rocket industry also served to highlight the extreme cost and inefficiency of the SLS program. The first launch was originally planned for 2017 – that’s five years ago. SLS is now years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Also, the per-launch cost of the SLS will be about $2 billion, and if you include amortized development costs it’s closer to $4-5 billion. Further still, NASA only has the infrastructure to build one SLS rocket per year. And yet this is going to be the workhorse of the Artemis program establishing sustained activity in cis-lunar space and on the Moon. Also, because SLS used existing technology, it has not moved the ball forward. It is not innovating any significant new rocket technology, like reusability.

These are genuine criticisms, although there’s not much we can do about it now. You would have to go back in time to 2011 to fix the problems with the SLS. Given where we are now, including competition from the Chinese, the government is keen to have a successful Artemis mission, and the SLS is the only game in town. It has clearly served one goal, to maintain our space industry for the last decade. This has some inherent value – expertise and industrial infrastructure has to be maintained.

Perhaps the best pathway forward from here is to use the SLS as developed for the Artemis program. We’ll get one launch per year out of the SLS, and hopefully there have been some lessons learned by the industry. At the same time, NASA needs to come up with a plan for what will replace the SLS as a heavy lift deep space launch system. Probably the best way to do this is in collaboration with private industry, and not just as contractors but as primary developers. We need a heavy lift system that is designed from the ground up, designed to be as reusable as possible to drive down costs. This could involve just taking bids from private companies, like they did with LEO systems.

Of course I wish the Artemis program every success, and I’m anxious to see people back on the Moon after more than 50 years. But we can’t keep doing things the old way. The costs and the stakes are too high. Hopefully we will learn the true lessons from the SLS and figure out how to develop a truly sustainable space program.

No responses yet